GIGA Focus International Edition English

Think Tanks: Their Development, Global Diversity and Roles in International Affairs

GIGA Focus | International Edition English | Number 06 |

The London-based Royal United Services Institute, one of the oldest continuously existing think tanks in the world, is celebrating the 180th anniversary of its founding this year. Other British and American think tanks with a focus on international affairs have been popping up for the past hundred years or so and have strong global reputations.

Think tanks have not remained a British or American phenomenon. Rather, thousands of think tanks have been founded in many other parts of the world. Still, the term "think tank" has remained ambiguous, reflecting the substantial diversity of think tanks' functions and forms.

  • While many definitions of think tanks emphasize the public policy focus of such organizations, the particular roles that think tanks actually play – either individually or as a group within a given context – need to be determined empirically. The same holds true for the supposedly positive role think tanks play in civil society.

  • The substantial diversity of think tanks around the globe reflects external parameters such as the general character and dynamics of the political regimes as well as the institutional specifics of the political systems under which think tanks operate, the particular "demand" for their services in different contexts, the availability of funding, the importance of other “suppliers” of policy-relevant knowledge, as well as the initiative and leadership of individual think tank-based policy entrepreneurs.

  • Think tanks can play a multitude of roles in international affairs – for example, they can provide opportunities for interactions and discussions among professionals within and across national borders; raise awareness and help set relevant agendas; inform and defend the foreign policies of individual states; engage in informal diplomacy; and nurture next-generation scholars and practitioners of international affairs.

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Suggested Citation Style

Köllner, Patrick (2011), Think Tanks: Their Development, Global Diversity and Roles in International Affairs, GIGA Focus International Edition English, 06, urn:nbn:de:0168-ssoar-309664


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The GIGA German Institute of Global and Area Studies – Leibniz-Institut für Globale und Regionale Studien in Hamburg publishes the Focus series on Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and global issues. The GIGA Focus is edited and published by the GIGA. The views and opinions expressed are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the institute. Authors alone are responsible for the content of their articles. GIGA and the authors cannot be held liable for any errors and omissions, or for any consequences arising from the use of the information provided.

General Editor GIGA Focus Series: Prof. Dr. Sabine Kurtenbach

Prof. Dr. Patrick Köllner

Vice President
Director of the GIGA Institute of Asian Studies

Prof. Dr. Patrick Köllner is Vice President of the GIGA German Institute of Global and Area Studies, Director of the GIGA Institute of Asian Studies, and Professor of Political Science at the University of Hamburg. His current research focuses on think tanks in Asia, Australasian policies towards China, and on Comparative Area Studies.

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